March 5, 2004

Newsweek & Schwartz, Kawa's Back, The SAS, Geller's Keen Perception, Treatment By Prayer, A Sad Tale, A Lawyer Proclaims, Hot Air Car?, Edward Challenged in Australia, Sylvia Browne Is A Liar, Touched in the Head, and Training ANN...


Table of Contents:


NEWSWEEK AND SCHWARTZ

Last week's issue of Newsweek ran a short piece on the JREF million-dollar challenge. When the reporter asked me for someone who disagreed with me, and for someone who had been tested for the JREF prize, I put her in touch with Gary Schwartz and with dowser Mike Guska. Schwartz was quoted in the article:

Gary Schwartz, a University of Arizona professor and an expert on the paranormal, says Randi alters testing parameters. "The phenomena are very sensitive," says Schwartz. "He doesn't optimize conditions."

That comment obviously means that Schwartz himself is clairvoyant, since he's never been involved with us other than a testing process he conducted at his lab at the University of Arizona on a challenge applicant who used very obvious trickery to fool him. Luckily — though Schwartz didn't notice it — one of the lab assistants spotted the trick and the hard evidence that proved it. My colleague Andrew Harter, who we'd sent there to observe — but not interfere or comment — also had seen it, and was relieved to see that at least the assistant had been able to spot the trick and was not under the injunction to not point it out, as Andrew was. Under pressure from his colleagues, Schwartz changed his opinion, and declared, not that the girl had been caught, but that the tests had not shown she had powers. That's the mealy-mouthed procedure we expect. Schwartz had absolutely hard evidence that there'd been a blatant trick performed, but he chose to fuzz out that fact. Oh yes, Schwartz was also at the JREF years ago to hear our input to the design of a proper protocol for testing John Edward, too, and though he praised us for the input and said he'd use it, he decided not to when he allowed Edward to run him down like a steamroller, and blew the tests altogether. His promise to give us a set of the original data was also reneged on, but that was no surprise. Yep, he's a winner!

What a weak, wimpy statement: "He doesn't optimize conditions." Untrue, not that Schwartz would know anything about that. He most certainly "optimizes conditions" like not keeping his eyes open and not maintaining security, so that he gets positive results. At the JREF we provide the very best, most agreeable, most workable conditions, for any and every claimant. As an example, for Mike Guska we bent over backwards to give him a warm-up period, we allowed him every break he wanted, we did it the way he wanted it done, and he agreed both before and after that we'd been fair and generous. Now, as if to feed Schwartz's delusions, Guska says in hindsight that he wasn't happy with the conditions — but that's what every dowser, without exception, says. After failing.


KAWA'S BACK!

Back in April, we heard from Susan Kawa and featured her here on the page. She now informs us of the developments in a project she's involved in, one that the JREF applauds:

I mentioned to you at TAM2 that while all-out activism is important to some, that I'd taken a gentler tack with skepticism — by volunteering to write grants for my kids' (public) elementary school science program. After a few successes in the $500 range, we just heard yesterday that we have been awarded the Toyota Tapestry Grant for Science. It's a biggie: $10,000!

With these funds, we will be building a "Mars Biosphere" 40ft-diameter dome-shaped greenhouse — a fun laboratory to study hydroponics, tray gardens, and entomology in the context of space travel. Just thought you'd like to know that the seeds of rationalism the JREF has planted in my mind will affect hundreds of children in my community, and that this middle-aged woman rejects anyone's assumption of who may be a likely advocate of the JREF message.

You can find Susan at www.mommarama.com


THE SAS

Speaking of commendable projects, one that could use your attention and support is the Society for Amateur Scientists (SAS), run by my friend Shawn Carlson. Go to www.sas.org and find out what these folks are doing. I particularly like their "LABRats" group. And see www.sas.org/CarlsonCV.html for a description of Shawn, the MacArthur Fellowship prize recipient who founded and runs this great organization. It's worth a look, and worth your support.


GELLER'S KEEN PERCEPTION

Uri Geller — remember him? — was briefly on another one of those "celebrity" shows in the UK, "Back to Reality." On February 21, the UK bookies — who actually take bets on the results of these juvenile shows — announced that Geller was the favorite to be the first one evicted from the game. On the 22nd, Geller wisely left voluntarily. Before he left (for reasons of offended morality, he said) he'd already stated to the group that he had been employed by the CIA for 3 years. Yeah, sure. He also "revealed" that the house he and the other celebs were staying in — which was packed with video cameras and microphones, and was broadcasting 24 hours a day, as everyone in the UK knew — "may be bugged"! Now, how could he have sensed that? He also divined that someone from the "outside" had been looking through his luggage. Wow! Could life get any more exciting for UK TV viewers…?


TREATMENT BY PRAYER

With the unusual hours that I keep, I'm often up very late at night, and I switch on TV just to see what's happening in the world of the night-owls. Endless commercial programs on weight loss, various cures, financial plans, prayer solutions, and other shows designed to attract the money of old folks, the bereaved, and the ill, follow one another in a dreary succession of vapid announcements.

Lorraine Day, M.D., a pretty blonde advisor on unorthodox healing methods — which she happens to have for sale — states that "All diseases are caused by one of three factors: malnutrition, dehydration, or stress." That surprised me, since I'd been misinformed to the point that I thought viruses and bacteria might have something to do with sickness. Dr. Day claims that it all came to her one day when she was fretting over a remarkably vicious-looking chest tumor she developed. She prayed, she said, and all was revealed to her. Since she skirts the issue well, we never learn whether she had this dreadful object surgically removed, or if she depended entirely on her divinely-revealed "Ten Steps" system which she offers to customers via the books, audiotapes, and herbal products she sells on her site. In any case, she is now free, she says, of that cancerous affliction. How, is not clear.

On her website, Dr. Day features:

A Warning to My Critics!

For those of you who are attacking me or the TRUTH I am telling, please be warned that there are SERIOUS consequences for you: you immediately will be placed on my Prayer List and I will pray for you daily! You may sneer at that, but if you do, it is only because you are poorly informed about the Power (and mechanism) of Prayer.

But I do not pray for retribution for you. God is not in the business of punishment. There is no punishment for sin — there are only consequences, meaning that you will reap exactly what you have sown!

Wow! There's a heavy threat! She goes on to announce some of her startling discoveries in medical science, one of which is that "AIDS is a man-made virus — I now have the government documentation confirming that this is true — and that it is, indeed, curable!" By her "Ten Steps," of course.

She tells us that her "critics are agents of The Father of Lies — Satan." Now, I'm a heavy critic, and I don't even believe in Satan — nor in the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa — but I guess I'd better get some charms or incantations to protect myself, just in case. Garlic at ten paces, Evil One!

Dr. Day advertises that when she developed breast cancer, she beat it by refusing to accept what she called, "mutilating surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation," but used her own system of divinely-revealed "natural, simple, inexpensive therapies designed by God" to cure herself.

This is a licensed M.D. Is the AMA interested? No, don't worry, Lorraine. They're asleep.


A SAD TALE

Reader Iain Lamond of Victoria, Australia, inspired by Nick Annis' outline of the possible problems arising from the re-copying and recopying of the Bible that we featured here, writes:

Reading your article on passing down the message through the generations reminded me of the story of the young curate attending the monastery. "What are my duties," he asked the old priest. "You copy the Bible by hand from the previous copy. It's been done this way century after century," replied the older man. "But couldn't that cause inaccuracies? A mistake that was made centuries ago would never be detected!" said the novice.

"Well now, that's true," the old priest mumbled, "I'll just look into that possibility." He vanished into the archives and was not seen for two days, and when he was found deep within the labyrinths of the book rooms, he was crying bitterly. When asked what was wrong, he replied, "The original word was 'celebrate'!"

Several readers took umbrage at Nick Annis' genealogy of the Bible. Nick is an artist, and is speaking figuratively. In any case, his point stands: the Bible isn't a single account, nor is it necessarily properly transmitted from original sources. Certainly, the King James version is faulty, fatally so. I never expected that anyone would have expected Nick to have been literally accurate, any more than we should expect the Bible to be....


A LAWYER PROCLAIMS

A correspondent identified only as "Erik" tells me that the strange man in Australia named Victor Zammit, whose bona fides are: "B.A.(Psych), Grad. Dip. Ed., M.A.(Legal Hist.), LL.B, Ph.D, lawyer, Euro-Australian, retired Solicitor of the Supreme Court of the New South Wales and the High Court of Australia," at www.victorzammit.com, recently wrote:

And if science has confirmed one aspect of psychic phenomena to be valid, genuine and acceptable THEN ALL OTHER PSI empirically produced results as presented by some of the most brillinat [sic] minds on earth inevitably are valid and have to be accepted as genuine.

I fail to see the logic in that, but since no psychic phenomena have passed that test, it's all moot, anyway. Zammit claims to be a lawyer, so we must forgive him such eccentricities. As Erik also notes, Zammit spells "Shermer" as "Sherman," and takes delight in showing that he can read "Who's Who" or some other biographical dictionary, by referring me to me as, "Zwinge Randi," but still gets it wrong. Zwinge was my family name before it was legally changed, many years ago. And, says this brilliant legal mind:

. . . there will be a price to pay for willful negative debunking. The probable worst case scenario is that they will be down in the dark, horrible realms for hundreds of years, all confused, in horrific conditions — probably with a great deal of despair.

With "Sherman"? Now I'm really worried...


HOT AIR CAR?

I wrote the inventor of the "air-powered" car that we mentioned here recently. I simply asked him if he had an operating vehicle. He answered:

I do not advertise that I have a vehicle operating. Whoever told you I do is reading what's not there or misinterpreting. I collect information, I promote possibilities, I want us all to have a happier, cleaner planet to live on. When and if I have a vehicle operating, it will be obvious from my site. Thank you for your interest in the human race and planet Earth.

Pneumatic Options Research Library www.AirCarAccess.com

Well, this is a pleasant surprise, indeed! Someone I questioned actually responded! Go to that site — if you haven't already — and see what you think. I still say that his definition of compressed air as "solar power" is quite wrong. I'll be the first to invest in his vehicle, when it materializes, count on it.


EDWARD CHALLENGED IN AUSTRALIA

In Australia, the consumer affairs office in Victoria is examining a complaint alleging that self-proclaimed psychic John Edward cannot actually talk to the dead. Wow! Who knew? A complaint was lodged by Melbourne "mind illusionist" Mark Mayer (www.mindillusionist.com.au/default.htm) who says that Edward "is a specialist at fooling people." He claimed that Edward's sell-out show due to open March 2nd in Melbourne would breach the Australian Trade Practices Act, which specifies that a "supplier of goods or services" must be able to substantiate any claims.

In reaction to this, Edward's tour promoter, Leon Nacson, said that Edward had a five-year record of producing "amazing" results. Gee, I have a 60-year record of that, and part of my professional name is "Amazing"! But Nacson was appropriately — and wisely — cautious about what he was actually claiming for Edward's show:

John is not there to prove either way to anybody that he actually contacts the other side — he's just throwing up visions that he sees and offering them to people.

Oh, I see, now. Those are just those silly people out there who weep and tremble when John pretends to be talking with their deceased loved ones, right? John's only guessing, just saying whatever occurs to him, and hoping that some of it's true? Now it's all clear to me.

But this upstart Mark Mayer thinks Edward's a knowing fake. Says Mark, "He asks questions in rapid succession, then when he gets an answer, he feeds it back as if he already knew the information." He also alleged that Edward used probability, suggesting common names or ailments that were likely to strike a chord with the person in the audience. It gets worse: Mayer said that if Edward were genuinely in contact with the dead, he'd be able to provide full names, not only the first letters. "Why can't the dead articulate? Why are they mumbling?" he said, pointing out that the disclaimer at the end of Edward's TV show stated that "advice, statements and predictions given by Edward were not intended to be factual, only entertainment."

But perhaps Nacson was just as aware as Mark Mayer of the techniques used by Edward. He stated, "I don't think John will say, 'I definitely saw your dead grandma.' He sees something and he wants you to interpret it." Right! In other words, Edward knows nothing, and wants you to tell him what the facts are, right? But then Nacson erred by saying that Edward would have been exposed already if he were a fake. He obviously doesn't read our web page...


SYLVIA BROWNE IS A LIAR

Getting heavy...

I don't really know why I'm spending any of my valuable time on the professional liar who uses the name Sylvia Browne. However, since I get so many questions from readers about what she says and writes about me and about the JREF, I have to do a certain amount of repair work from time to time.

This examination of her recent mendacious tirades will not be kind. I've no obligation to be tolerant of this person, and I'm known to call 'em as I see 'em. She has freely attacked me in the media, making false and damaging statements about me, without any opposition from those who gave her the platform from which to deliver this trash. I'm answering in kind. The big difference in our approaches is that all of my response that follows is factual and provable. And it's damning to Browne. WHAT FOLLOWS IS STRONG, DIRECT, NO-HOLDS-BARRED, AND TRUE. I'll apologize in advance to my readers, so that I might be spared the expected murmers about how rude I was. Browne has viciously slandered and libeled me, in the public media, repeatedly. This is my response, and I don't give a damn whether she likes it or not. Read on, if you dare.

As most of you will know, Sylvia owes her entire success to those two intellectual giants of TV — Larry King and Montel Williams. These are two well-educated men who certainly are not themselves deceived by these "psychics" on whom they dote; they give them air-time and promote them freely because of the basic bottom line: all that matters to them is the program ratings, thus the opinion of their sponsors, and they know full well that they'll get maximum attention when any "psychic" matter is introduced on their programs. That's all they care about; truth is discarded when money is scented.

Let's look back to just one particularly cruel hoax perpetrated by this woman Browne. Years ago on Montel Williams' show, she spoke to the grandmother of a local missing child, a six-year-old named Opal Jo Jennings who disappeared from her home in north Texas in March of 1999. Browne told the distraught woman that the child was still alive but had been sold into white slavery and was currently being held in Japan. She even gave a city name, but there is no such city in Japan. Moving ahead three years and nine months, we find that the body of little Opal was recovered — just seven weeks ago; she had been killed by a blow to the head. Currently, there is a man in prison in Texas who has confessed to, and been convicted of, Opal Jo's abduction and murder.

Think about what's happened here: Sylvia Browne callously raised the hopes of the family of this little child, placing the fictitious location on the other side of the world. She did this well after a comprehensive search had already been performed in Texas, so she was pretty sure that the girl would never be found. She thought she was safe against exposure. She wasn't; the body was found and definitively identified. That was a callous, cruel, manipulative act by Sylvia Browne. But no one calls her to account for it, and her supporters continue on in Lotusland cooing over her wonderful powers. You have to wonder how someone can do such a heartless act. Sylvia can, and does.

Larry Thornton just sent me a tape and a transcript of the "Coast to Coast" radio show of Thursday, February 19th, 2004, Browne's most recent attack on me. The host was George Noory. There were three mentions of my name in this show, full of blatant lies and slander. Sylvia was at her best, which is to say, at her worst.

First, asked by Noory about her agreement to do the test for the million-dollar JREF prize, she interrupted with: "He [Randi] doesn't have any money!"

That statement by Sylvia Browne is a direct, knowing, lie. She has received documentary proof of the existence of the James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account, along with a letter from Goldman, Sachs & Company stating that the account — in "liquid assets" — is "in excess of $1,000,000." Sylvia Browne is a liar.

Then Noory, obviously not one of those investigative reporters (does the term "muckraker" come to mind?) flourished the tired old "escrow" flag. He commented that I had not "put the [prize] money in escrow." And Sylvia agreed, saying, "Well, he won't do it!"

That statement by Sylvia Browne is a direct, knowing, lie. The gravel-voiced predator is well aware — as we all are — of the fact that the JREF made a specific exception to meet her dizzy demands, all of which can be seen at www.randi.org/jr/082903.html, at www.randi.org/jr/110703.html, www.randi.org/jr/03-09-2001.html and at www.randi.org/jr/013004andr.html. Sylvia Browne is a liar.

She continued with Noory: "And I asked him to, when they called me on Larry King. And I said, have him contact me, with the money in escrow, because my lawyer was in attendance too, and that was the end. I never heard from him again."

That statement by Sylvia Browne is a direct, knowing, lie. Sylvia knows how to reach me by e-mail, postal mail, telephone, and fax. I contacted her, and Larry King, on November 3rd of last year — by certified mail. In that letter, I agreed to put the money in escrow for her special needs, and I asked Larry King to act as the official agent for the million dollars, which would mean that he would have power-of-attorney to turn it over to Browne as soon as she'd shown her powers. Larry King ignored that information; he never responded. And, Sylvia Browne is a liar.

Noory asked her: "Alright, so if he'd put it in escrow, you'd conduct the challenge?" She answered: "Absolutely!"

That statement by Sylvia Browne is a direct, knowing, lie. She knows that we are prepared to do just that, yet she refuses to be tested. Folks, it's now March 5th, 2004. That means that 1,095 days (exactly three years!) have passed since this taloned vulture accepted, on international television — seen by millions around the world — to be tested. Sylvia Browne is a liar.

Noory chirped, brightly: "Alright, well, it's not in escrow yet!" Sylvia answered: "No it's not, and it's been months!" Noory chortled, "Maybe years, huh?" Let's get some common sense going here, if it's not too much of an intellectual challenge for Browne and Noory. 123 days (four months!) ago, both Larry King and Sylvia learned by certified mail of my agreement to put the million in escrow, and neither of them have responded to that. King is obviously afraid to offend his meal ticket — Sylvia — and Sylvia doesn't dare to respond because she knows that would be the end of her pretensions. Sylvia Browne is a liar.

Browne, on a roll, stated, "Well, you know he just started an atheist society. Isn't that nice?"

That statement by Sylvia Browne is a direct, knowing, lie. Lacking anything more substantial to say, and luxuriating in the obvious fact that Noory won't challenge any of her statements, Browne merely invented a total fiction, an outright lie. I have never started any "atheist society," and I have never belonged to any such organization. Sylvia Browne is a liar.

At this point, Noory went on to the next caller. Then, later on in the show, he announced, "Sylvia, I got a fast-blast e-mail in from somebody in St. Louis, and they said you probably know Paul Harris. Paul of course has a very successful talk show on my old affiliate, KTRS; and he, Paul, is a friend of James Randi, and apparently Paul on his show said, James Randi does not have the money for the challenge." Sylvia answered, "No, he doesn't."

That statement by Sylvia Browne is a direct, knowing, lie. Noory, as we might expect, did no checking at all, but accepted and repeated this statement about Paul Harris. I contacted Paul, who denied that he had ever said anything like that, of course, and he then contacted Noory and demanded an on-air retraction and apology from him. As of this date, Paul's heard nothing. Welcome to the club, Paul. Again, Sylvia Browne is a liar.

I’ve heard from the Art Bell/George Noory show several times before, asking if I wanted to be on the show, and I've always declined. Just yesterday I heard from a woman at Noory's office who was quite puzzled at my disinterest. I cannot imagine why I'd want to help the show’s ratings, or give them any help at all. More importantly, since the Coast-to-Coast show and Larry King Live both have their staffs filtering incoming phone calls, I'd be at a huge disadvantage. Never play another man's game, especially if he's making up the rules as he goes along.

Probably hoping for further involvement in a scandal, Noory asked: "Does he harass you?" Sylvia saw the opportunity for a slanderous statement, and took it: "No. No. Because I know enough about him from working with… ah... police departments to....ah… well, we won't go into that. But anyway... you know, he's, he's picking on a very, very ominous opponent with me." Oh, Sylvia, "ominous" is not the right word to use in this context — though it's correct to describe yourself in that fashion. I hardly trembled at all when I took you on, years ago. You failed so dramatically, right from the very beginning, that I knew you were a fumbler. What I didn't take into account was the shameless support and groveling that you would enjoy from the irresponsible media — such people as Montel Williams, Larry King, and George Noory are excellent examples of that genre. When they look at you they don't see a tired old woman who smokes far too much and has fingernails like a harpy; they see dollar signs.

This demonstrates Browne's use of the "ironclad innuendo." She drops in the word "police," then coyly drops her eyes and declines to tell what she "knows." How noble. This harpy has nothing to "reveal" but tired old canards that have been kicking around this scene for decades. Those who I've exposed as fakers — and their devoted dupes — cannot deny the truth of what I've said and written, so they're forced to attack my reputation — the ancient ad hominem tactic. For the grubbies out there, that's sufficient material for them to giggle over, and to dismiss my work. Those who give it any thought, see it for what it is.

Sylvia next played the "God" card, something I wouldn't expect such a pious, virtuous, person to pass up, and one of the few cards she has left to play: "He [Randi] doesn't believe! When I was on Larry King's Show I said, 'Do you believe in God?' He said, 'No.'" This is the kind of cheap shot Sylvia's famous for. She knows she can always win points with this gimmick. She continued: "And then I said, 'Do you believe in the afterlife?' He said 'No.' And I thought, there went the rest of him!" I admit that I don't follow that "rest of him" reference, but Sylvia works in mysterious ways. Following this comment, both Noory and his guest did some off-mike chuckling. How amusing that Randi isn't superstitious, and how damning!

The reality of this exchange, as you might expect, was somewhat different. Here's the conversation that actually took place:

BROWNE: Randi, do you believe in God?

RANDI: Which god? There are lots of gods, thousands of them out there.

BROWNE: No, I mean a supreme being.

RANDI: Well, there are thousands of supreme beings, too.

BROWNE: You're hedging me.

KING: He doesn't believe in a single god.

BROWNE: Okay.

RANDI: I don't believe in deities in general.

BROWNE: I know that. You don't believe in an afterlife, either.

RANDI: I have no evidence for an afterlife, no.

BROWNE: That's too bad. That's too bad. I'm sorry for you, Randi.

Note, please, that Sylvia's feeling sorry for me! This weary, confused old woman has sympathy for the skeptic who lives in a real world, while she flounders around in a fuzzy, foggy, desolate atmosphere full of goblins, ghosts, cigarette smoke, and failed magic!

At the end of the show, Noory got back to what he considered just about his speed and quality. He asked Sylvia, "You mentioned something earlier about Randi and the police department. Do you care to continue that?" Sylvia, showing some rare common sense, declined to answer. She croaked: "Not really." Noory, being as precious and cute as he could manage: "Darn, I wanted to squeeze that outta ya!"

Browne tossed in that "police" buzz-word solely for effect, since I wasn't available to press her for an explanation. She hoped that listeners would smirk and take delight in this "in" reference. It had an effect alright; it elicited comments from many persons who took it as just what it was: a contemptible, desperate ploy delivered in an attempt to obfuscate the real questions that Browne dares not address.

Now, this is only one episode of Sylvia Browne in one of her public appearances, one of the more recent ones. The only reason that I've gone into this one in detail, is to express to you — as you might have noticed — that Sylvia Browne speaks no sooth. I repeat: Sylvia Browne is a liar.

But you knew that.

In leaving this tiresome subject, Canadian Larry Thornton pointed out to me an exchange between Browne and a caller to a Larry King show that Sylvia was on, that in Larry Thornton's words, shows psychics how to never be wrong. If something you just said turns out to be the exact opposite, then change your frame of reference:

CALLER: I lost my father six years ago on the plane traveling to Europe. I'd like to know how he died . . .

BROWNE: Was your father — had beautiful dark hair with some gray in it?

CALLER: Very blond.

BROWNE: No, no. This man that I see is dark. Dark-haired. Because he comes and says he's a spokesperson.

CALLER: Maybe his father.

BROWNE: Could be. Because he has gray in his hair.

CALLER: Maybe that's my brother-in-law then. A big man?

BROWNE: Yes.

CALLER: That's my brother-in-law that we lost nine years ago.

Adds Larry Thornton: "There you go. Avoiding a direct contradiction is as easy as introducing a new character."

Months ago, Browne described her second encounter with me in 1989 where she demonstrated her abilities by reading an audience assembled for the taping of a TV special. She failed miserably, and some day I'll publish here the full text of that abysmal performance. Later, at the beginning of March, 2001, she offered on the Larry King show this excuse for that failure:

They [the studio audience] were all Germans! And they couldn't understand a word I said! That was a setup, as you well know.... because they couldn't speak English. I found that out after, they were all Germanic!

No, Browne, that was another blatant lie, as you well know. It's what you have been offering your fans as an alibi, but it's just another of your lies. Only one member of that audience of 140 persons was German, though he spoke English, and you spent a full one minute and seven seconds rattling off wrong guesses for him, then found out he was German, only after he told you that — in English! Didn't you know that already, Sylvia? You conversed with the other four audience members you "read" there, in fluent English, didn't you? And yet you told Larry King that they were "all Germans"! Sylvia Browne, you're a liar.

ADVERTISEMENT: I'D LIKE TO CONTACT ANYONE WHO HAS HAD A READING DONE BY SYLVIA BROWNE — THE $700-a-half-hour TELEPHONE READING — AND HAS THE RECORDING OF THAT READING THAT CAN BE SHARED WITH OUR READERS. I'LL PREPARE A TRANSCRIPT AND ANALYSIS OF THAT RECORDING AND PLACE IT HERE ON OUR WEB SITE FOR REFERENCE. ANYONE OUT THERE WHO CAN SUPPLY SUCH AN ITEM, PLEASE GET IN TOUCH. THANK YOU!

Okay, now I'm bored — again — with Sylvia Browne and her sour face and attitude. Bored. I hope you are, too.


TOUCHED IN THE HEAD

Jim Gleaves of Graton, California, writes:

I thought you might be interested in the media's latest attempt to appear fair by ignoring the evidence. There's a new film called "Touched," about the folks who believe they've been abducted by aliens. The film maker claims to be an "agnostic" on the subject of abductions, but the film features Harvard psychologist John E. Mack, who's scarcely a disinterested party. I was inspired by your example to write this letter to the paper [The Bohemian], which they had the grace to publish:

I was disappointed to read the uncritical review of "Touched" by Gretchen Giles. The film's creator, Laurel Chiten, claims to be an "agnostic" in regards to alien abductions. This is like being an agnostic on the issue of the Holocaust. It gives the illusion of neutrality, while ignoring the evidence that comes down squarely on one side of the debate. And when it comes to evidence, the people who believe in abductions certainly have a problem! Hundreds of thousands of people claim to have been abducted. Perhaps one day they'll manage to snag a tool, take a photo, or simply grab an alien hair or scale. Or explain why the advanced aliens use rather unsuccessful hypnosis to cover memories, instead of a simple anesthetic. Or as Carl Sagan asked: "Why are they doing breeding one-on-one at such a slow pace? Why not steal a few humans, sequence our DNA, look at variations and make whatever genetic engineering changes they want. After all, WE almost have the ability to do that!"

In the meantime, several major studies demonstrate exactly how such "memories" can be created. Elizabeth Loftus proved it's easy to induce memories of false childhood events, such as being lost in a mall. Recently she published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in which false memories were induced of witnessing a demonic possession.

It only takes about 30 seconds on Google to find these studies, but Chiten decided instead to interview a Vatican demonologist. Your reviewer called this "brilliant." It looks a lot more like an attempt to avoid real critical thought. Chiten can put whatever she wants in her movie, but I'd like the Bohemian's reviews to be more perceptive and balanced.

More amusing statements can be found on the site for the film at: www.blinddogfilms.com/touched/. One example is: "I now call myself agnostic. I am not convinced that these people have been visited by 'aliens,' but I do believe that something profound has happened to them. And maybe, just maybe, everything they have described is, in fact, completely true."

I think that the title of the film — "Touched" — says it all...


TRAINING ANN

Reader Sean Conner — who works with "artificial neural networks" (ANN) — pointed out to me that my criticism of the anonymous Dane mentioned last week who wriggled out of the JREF challenge, was perhaps not quite fair. He was, after all, in the process of "training" his ANN, Sean wrote. It would not be possible for him to have done that "blind." True, and I was aware of that, but when he claimed a 98% accuracy for a system not yet in operation or anywhere near completion, I saw something very wrong. Sean noted that as well:

I'm not sure how he's arriving at 98% accuracy if he's still training the neural net. Sure, as more training data is fed through, it will get more accurate, but this is similar to the calibration phase dowsers get when they attempt the JREF prize (as described in your column multiple times). I can only assume that once the data set has been "digitized" (for lack of a better term) that all the data sets are run through the neural net and that in the last run of 150 datasets, only three were misclassified. That's the only way it makes sense to me.

I received a HUGE amount of correspondence on this subject, and I could use only these selected bits to represent the comments. I'll slip in here a comment by reader Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro in Sweden, who notes that the "blindness" factor

. . . should have been applied in the process of selecting training data, so that a random selection of composers and politicians was used, and we do not know if that was the case.

That's what I should have specified, and it's what I meant to say.

Sean has here contributed substantially to our understanding of the "artificial neural network" situation, a subject I find fascinating — though obviously full of serious and hidden pitfalls. But he quotes further and shows us even more clearly how the Dane is probably erring in his project and his expectations:

The real fun, though, comes when [the Dane's "Astromate" program] is run against new data and you are right that it probably won't survive a critical examination. There's an apocryphal story about the Pentagon attempting to program a neural network to detect tanks hidden in stands of trees. They were able to get the neural network to correctly guess which photos had hidden tanks, and which ones didn't — half the photos had tanks hidden in trees, the other half were just trees. Thinking they had the problem solved, a fresh set of photos was submitted, but now the neural network did no better than random guessing. From http://neil.fraser.name/writing/tank/:

Eventually someone noticed that in the original set of 200 photos, all the images with tanks had been taken on a cloudy day, while all the images without tanks had been taken on a sunny day. The neural network had been asked to separate the two groups of photos and it had chosen the most obvious way to do it — not by looking for a camouflaged tank hiding behind a tree, but merely by looking at the color of the sky. The military was now the proud owner of a multi-million dollar mainframe computer that could tell you if it was sunny or not.

You see, it's nice to have readers with a wide range of experience, technical ability, and specialties. Thank you, Sean!

Reader "PB", also one who works with "neural networks," comments:

[The Dane's] "system" might work very well at the task of figuring out whether an individual was a "composer" or a "politician" (we call this "classification") based on birth dates and "important dates" in their lives. Nothing at all to do with astrology, of course, but it just might work. . . . It would simply reflect the way that the important dates in a composer's career begin long before the important dates in a politician's career, and cluster differently along the time-line (politicians do more later on, or within an electoral cycle, while composers' dates would be more or less uniformly distributed). There is also the distinct probability that composers, in general, are from earlier epochs, because artists are generally better remembered than politicians.

Another reader — Paul Murray, of Brisbane, Australia — contributed the same idea:

I do not think that the Danish guy's computer program qualifies for the JREF prize because it does not necessarily establish anything paranormal. It may very well be that a person born at a certain time of year is more likely to be a composer than a politician, but this may be due to well-understood seasonal factors unrelated to the mystic influence of Pisces or whatever. Proving causation is a long way from proving correlation.

Many people are prone to "Seasonal Affective Disorder", a.k.a. "the Winter Blues," and it is easy to suppose that this would have an effect on a developing child. A seasonal variation correlating schizophrenia to being born at a certain time of year may be the result of lower levels of vitamin D in the mother's bloodstream during the winter months. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1446968.stm) So, correlating astrological sign to personality or career in later life does not necessarily demonstrate that something paranormal is going on.

Another possibility is that there may have been a period where, for historical reasons, fewer people became composers. This period would of course correspond to some particular astrological arrangement (particularly of the slower-orbiting planets). It may be that during some 20-year Viennese war when young men became soldiers rather than composers, Uranus was square of Jupiter. A statistical match-up will indeed find a negative correlation between this astrological configuration and compositional careers, but this does not necessarily mean anything supernatural. I'm sure anyone with a little imagination could come up with more scenarios like this. It may very possibly be that there are strange and pervasive forces in the universe overlooked by 400 years of diligent and painstaking work by civilization . . .

Chris Duff adds, discussing the "training" of an ANN:

Once the system is then [following input of the training data] given the parameters of a new set of composers and politicians to "test" it, its performance will be seen to bomb. Why? Because the system has been back-fitted to match the data it has previously seen. I personally have applied such a system to predicting results of soccer matches given a set of inputs (games won, goals scored etc.). The money I have made from this keeps me in my 9-5 job!

The back-fitting problem from over-tuned systems is well known in financial markets, and problems with its overuse are described well in books such as "Getting Started in Technical Analysis" by Jack D. Schwager. Needless to say, software packages promising to make you vast fortunes in financial markets using such methods, abound on the Internet.

Good observations, and thank you all for your welcome and valued input.

In this regard, I recall an event back when there was such a big fuss going over the "Gauquelin affair" — the one in which CSICOP was involved re astrology, and astronomer George Abell unwisely devalued the contributions and opinions of a chap who lacked academic credentials, but who was certainly capable of making responsible statements in the field. Abell later apologized for his presumption in that respect. At that time, there was a claim made by French psychologists Michel and Françoise Gauquelin that astrology could indicate through horoscopes whether or not a subject was likely to be connected with the military. Then someone pointed out that military constraints of travel, vacations, and other factors, might be sufficiently seasonal to be significant elements in the time-of-conception — and thus the time-of-birth — of children born to military couples. I thought, and still think, that this is not an unlikely possibility. But, as has been pointed out in the matter here under discussion, that would have nothing whatsoever to do with astrology.

Gentlemen, thank you all. You've added considerably to my knowledge of such matters, and it's been my privilege to share this with our readers!


IN CLOSING

Correction department: apologies to Gene Simmons. I wrote here that firearms were not in use when Nostradamus died, so he could not have been "shot." I was misinformed, by about 240 years... Though it's hard to find references to the actual date of the invention of firearms — "small arms" as opposed to artillery — I now know that primitive hand-held firearms were described as early as 1326 C.E. My thanks to Jacob Chesser — and some 20 others — for the educational input. I learn something every day....

Also, the FDA warning letter to Tedeton that I celebrated last week, was actually send almost a year ago, not just "recently."

That list of applicants for the JREF prize, already promised, will be posted here next week...

Earlier this week I spoke with Paul Harris of the "Harris On Line" radio show in St. Louis. At Paul’s web site: www.harrisonline.com/audio/listings/jamesrandi.htm you can hear that show, in which Sylvia Browne comes in for frequent mention...

I received a note following my recent mention of the Moslem cleric who banned observance of St. Valentine’s Day:

After I read your article "A CLOSE CALL" I sent the following to all my friends. Personally, I think that you are an intelligent person, that is why you deserve to know the truth and only the truth about the REAL Muslims; we are not all the same, some of us make mistakes but it is not fair that all have to pay for it, if you know what I mean. Please reply to me and tell me, what was your intention of advertising that article?

I responded:

There are those in the USA who also want St. Valentine’s Day ignored, though not made illegal. Your note implies that YOU are a REAL Muslim. How do you establish that? YOU follow the Muslim practices, but others don’t? There are dozens of distinctly different Christian sects, each of which says that it is the REAL Christian church. Who is right here, or are all of you wrong – and by that I mean Christians and Muslims, and all others of the hundreds of religions around the world. Any variety of any religion that claims to be the REAL religion, needs to prove that claim.

I “advertised” that article to show that the particular cleric I named, was making what I look upon as a frivolous statement and action. I believe there are much more important things that he might have paid attention to, such as the practice of stoning to death an adulterous wife, or imprisoning a man who takes more than one wife.